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CongressNow: GOP Shake-Up Coming on Armed Services Committees

A wave of Republican retirements will mean a major shake-up in the GOP lineup on both the House and Senate Armed Services committees in the 111th Congress.

At least three long-serving Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, including ex-chairman and current ranking member Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the No. 2 Republican Jim Saxton (N.J.) and senior GOPer Terry Everett (Ala.), are retiring at the end of this Congress.

On the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is the top Republican, and there would be a vacancy if he wins the White House. Also, Sen. John Warner (Va.), the committee’s former chairman and a one-time Navy secretary under President Nixon, is retiring after serving three decades on panel.

The House retirements will set off a scramble to fill the top Republican slot, where the chairman or ranking member would likely either be a key defender of McCain’s defense policy or a leading opponent of an Obama administration. While seniority plays some role in deciding who will take over the House panel, GOP leaders also will have a stake in selecting the next leader early in 2009.

Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), an eight-term lawmaker whose upstate New York district is home to the Army’s Fort Drum, is considered the frontrunner for the GOP slot, Congressional sources say.

A moderate who is close to House leaders, McHugh has been supportive of increased defense spending and a big backer of expanded troop benefits and military construction projects as the current ranking member of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. He also sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

“Fortunately we have a great number of individuals to get the chance to now step up and do the work,” McHugh said in a recent interview. “There will be changes with the personalities and dynamic, but not issues or approaches.”

According to McHugh, striking a balance between tighter Pentagon budgets and bills coming due for repairing and replacing military equipment lost in Iraq and Afghanistan will be a challenge.

Other possible contenders for the post are Republican Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.) and Mac Thornberry (Texas), who both already serve as senior members of the panel. Congressional aides suggest Thornberry will emerge as McHugh’s top opponent, especially if Republicans suffer more defeats this fall and elect new House leaders.

Thornberry, a conservative who was elected in 1994 and represents a largely rural Texas district, is most widely known as an author of the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security. He also serves of the House Intelligence Committee.

Thornberry declined to comment for this article. Bartlett said the House panel’s GOP composition and leadership is “very uncertain” until after the elections.

In the Senate, seniority would likely determine McCain’s successor. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a conservative who backs increased military spending and has strongly supported the Bush administration’s war policies, is in line to take over that post.

“If Warner and McCain are gone, we could see a more partisan approach, ” if Inhofe takes over, a Republican Capitol Hill veteran said.

But Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who was especially close to Warner, said,“I think we will continue to be a committee that operates in a bipartisan way, even though we have our differences.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), another member of the panel, conceded there would a “substantial loss of knowledge” if McCain and Warner leave next year. However, Sessions called Inhofe “deeply experienced in military matters” and praised him as a solid choice.

But a former staffer cautioned that, traditionally, Inhofe “holds definite views and is more blunt” than McCain and Warner. “I don’t see Inhofe and Levin having the same collegial role,” he said.

One Congressional observer said Inhofe’s direction for the GOP will be set early on by whether he decides to organize a “professional staff” with a military background or a largely political one that does not have the same defense expertise.

Even if McCain fails to the win presidency, the panel could still see significant changes. McCain seems likely to shake up the committee staff if he is no longer focused on campaigning.

Neither McCain or Inhofe responded to requests for comment.

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